We have to learn to say no

This column was published in the Guelph Mercury in February 2005. They were planning a two-sided view of development in Guelph, but couldn’t find someone to speak in favour of uncontrolled growth. They were all too busy doing it to bother defending it.

At an all-candidates meeting during the last municipal election campaign, we were asked if we favoured the creation of a green belt around Guelph. Of course, most did. Even those successful candidates who have spent the last year and a half saying yes to every development proposal brought before council.

I remember thinking at the time that it doesn’t make much sense to create an artificial green belt when there is already a natural one out there. This is generally known as farm land, wetland and woodland. The problem is that it is getting smaller and further away from the centre of town. It is hard to place anything on the edge of the city when the edge won’t stand still.

We cannot have viable greenbelts if we keep giving the green light to every developer who wanders into city hall with a plan to turn woodland into housing estates. As Joni Mitchell pointed out, if you pave paradise and put up a parking lot, you don’t have paradise anymore.

Those among us who need to be dragged by the nose and forced to learn our lessons the hard way might see this soon enough on the corner of Woodlawn and Woolwich. For the rest, there is already ample evidence about the effects of unchecked urban sprawl. The provincial government saw it and brought in a couple of pieces of legislation such as the Greenbelt Protection Act and the Places to Grow Act. One is designed to protect sensitive rural land stretching from the Niagara Escarpment to the Oak Ridges Moraine. The other looks at future growth in the Greater Horseshoe Area, which includes Guelph.

Although the provincial effort is a noble one, it suffers the general weakness of applying patchwork, ad hoc solutions to big environmental problems. There are several contradictions between the two proposed Acts. For example, while one tries to protect rural land, the other envisions an expansion of the 400 series highways. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The more Guelph grows, the less farm land, wetland and woodland there is between us and Waterloo Region. That’s a given. Sprawl affects the air, with increasingly frequent smog days. It affects our food. We can’t buy locally produced vegetables if we’ve squeezed out the local farms. It also strains our water supply, sewage system, waste disposal, public transit and other infrastructure services.

The only way to protect the greenbelt surrounding Guelph is to learn to say no to the developers. We need to take a break while the city catches up with itself. Once we have the city back under control, we would then need to manage future growth by restricting it to a rate at which we can absorb it. A big part of this would be setting residential development charges at a level where growth would pay for itself.

Provincial legislation can protect some rural greenbelt land, and provide a context within which we can make future growth decisions. But if we truly want to preserve our city and the surrounding countryside, we will have to do it ourselves.